MLK: “Believe Women,” Rape, and the Worst-Case Scenario

Yesterday, I wrote a post arguing that the supposedly woke slogan “Believe Women” has some odd implications for the recent Sanders-Warren controversy. It implies that we should believe Elizabeth Warren’s accusation that Sanders is a sexist, or at least presume his guilt until he can conclusively prove his innocence. Because I take this consequence to be a reductio, I take “Believe Women” to be an absurdity. Put charitably, the original, unqualified version of the slogan has to be modified. Put uncharitably, it has to be rejected. To split the difference, it requires a bit of both.

But I’m not done with “Believe Women.” Today is MLK Day, the day we devote to the celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. But if Believe Women is to be believed, we face a problem here. There is credible evidence in the public domain to suggest that MLK witnessed a rape happening in front of his face, and not only offered no assistance to the victim, but offered encouragement to the rapist. Granted, this evidence comes through the highly suspect and problematic route of an FBI agent’s notes on unconstitutional FBI surveillance on King. It was also part of an FBI sponsored blackmail attempt on King. But it is credible enough to rise to the level of a serious allegation and a serious hypothesis.* One of many miscarriages of justice here is that the FBI not only did what it did, but on learning what it did, did nothing about it.**

This is just to say that the evidence of King’s behavior arose from an all-round moral shit-show involving diverse forms of culpability. But the fact remains: though not conclusive, the evidence cannot easily be dismissed. Put it this way: I find the evidence against King more indicative of wrongdoing than the evidence alleged against Scot Peterson, R. Kelly, Tulsi Gabbard, or Dianna Lysius (the landlady whose L-T case I discussed a few months back). All of those cases have been “litigated” in our media; meanwhile, the allegations against King have widely been dismissed without much consideration (“cover-up” is a perfectly appropriate description). It would be inappropriate to infer without qualification that King is guilty, but it is irresponsible to wish or explain the evidence away. It’s there. We have to live with the ambiguity.

I don’t want to spend this post parsing the evidence. In the nature of the case, we can’t really do that until the year 2027 anyway. The question I want to pose is, rather, what we’re to do if the worst-case scenario turns out to be true. My point is not that it is true, or that it’s more likely to be true than anything else. It’s that it’s likely enough to be true that we need to think it through before it falls on our heads.

If the worst-case scenario turns out to be true, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a moral monster. This is not to impugn his achievements on behalf of the civil rights movement. Nor is it to detract from his message in defense of racial equality. (The much-hyped socialism and Zionism I could do without.) Nor is it to conflate his lesser sexual indiscretions with the one I’m discussing. Adultery and infidelity are not great things, but they’re not comparable to watching a rape and getting off on it. Nor is it to deny that a person in his situation would have been under terrible stress that calls for a cutting-of-moral-slack–though I find it interesting that Palestinian activists who acquit themselves under much worse stress rarely get the credit for it that they deserve. But if MLK really watched a rape and got off on it, we have to stop celebrating his life. He was in that case not an exemplar of justice, but a colossal, monstrous fraud. Not the first. Not the last. But an undeniable instance of one.

I don’t want to dwell publicly on the details, but I’ve been in the situation MLK was in: I once witnessed one person’s raping another. It’s an experience I often wish, without success, that I could forget. Contrary to one attempt to defend MLK, we need not blind ourselves to truth by dwelling too insistently on the fact that we only have audio but not video of this alleged rape.*** Anyone who’s been in the proximity of a rape can tell you what a rape sounds like. It’s not a pleasant or equivocal sound. If the victim is screaming for help, and she doesn’t sound like she’s joking, you probably need to do something about it. Something besides standing there and encouraging the rapist.

I don’t mean to imply that all rapes sound like that, or that a rape that doesn’t sound like that isn’t one. What I mean is: don’t bullshit yourself into thinking that “all we have is audio” unless you’re prepared to listen to the audio once it comes out–and if it is what it’s alleged to be, to hear it in your head for the rest of your life. You want to “believe women”? They’re exceptionally believable when they’re actually being raped right there in your proximity.

If MLK is what this accusation says he is, we should tear his statutes down and tell “the children” why we had to. Don’t tell me they can’t handle it. We tell them about Birmingham and Montgomery and Bull Connor and the murder of the Freedom Riders, don’t we? Not exactly savory stuff. If push comes to shove in the worst-case scenario, we might as well tell them the rest.


* This sort of response, for instance, is not going to cut it. Barbara Ransby writes:

Absolutely any allegation of rape has to be taken seriously. However, this irresponsible account, drawn from questionable documents, has serious shortcomings and risks turning readers into historical peeping Toms by trafficking in what amounts to little more than rumor and innuendo from F.B.I. files.

Isn’t that combination of claims transparently self-contradictory? If absolutely any allegation has to be taken seriously, so do Garrow’s or the FBI’s. But Ransby clearly seems to be imply that we shouldn’t take them seriously.

As for Ransby’s suggestion that a focus on this case is somehow distinctively racialized, I offer LBJ’s presumably lily-white penis as rebuttal.

In a story that is almost too horrific to be believed, according to biographer Robert Dallek, when a group of journalists once asked Johnson why he felt so strongly about the need to continue the fight in Vietnam, the president of the United States is reported to have “unzipped his fly, drew out his substantial organ and declared, ‘This is why!'” (Eric Alterman, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, p. 181, citing Dallek’s Flawed Giant, p. 491).

We have the moral right to know whether our supposed moral heroes, black or white, are as fucked up as they often appear to have been. No one seems to have a problem with that when the target is JFK, LBJ, or Nixon. So why draw the line at MLK? Contrary to Ransby, I don’t see anything “irresponsible” about Garrow’s account. What’s irresponsible is alleging that it is but not defending the allegation.

**Equally sickening but also potentially exculpatory is the fact that the FBI notes don’t dwell on the rape. They treat the rape as somehow on par with the other “unnatural” sexual acts taking place. This is perhaps the best basis for doubting the allegation: why is the rape itself so exiguously described? It’s possible that “rape” is a stand-in for a non-coercive act. But it’s also possible it isn’t. I wouldn’t want to bet on it either way.

***David Greenberg writes: “Also, summaries aren’t recordings; it’s hard even to imagine how audio recordings could offer dispositive proof that a rape did or didn’t happen. This context thus weighs against any simple conclusion about the incident. The magazine’s overwrought editorial undermines Garrow’s patient work.” It’s not as hard as he thinks.

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